The Russian Academy of Sciences (RAS), threatened with liquidation, has been granted a temporary reprieve. The Duma — the Russian Parliament — agreed today to postpone until October its final vote on a bill that some feel will mark the end of the academy, founded in 1724 by Peter the Great.
The Russian government, at a meeting last week, launched a bill proposing fundamental changes to the academy. According to the bill, dated 28 June, the academy is to merge with two minor societies — the Russian Academy of Medical Sciences and the Russian Academy of Agricultural Sciences. The responsibility for the more than 400 research institutes now under the academy’s auspices would be transferred to a new government-run agency.
“It was a shocking surprise, says Vladimir Fortov, a physicist who in May was elected as the new president of the RAS. “I’ve learned of the existence of that bill only on the eve of the government meeting on Thursday.”
The government had reportedly hoped to push the law through the Duma by the end of this week. Fortov says that he spent the last couple of days running from pillar to post trying to persuade Duma members to refrain from voting that early. Eventually, the academy leadership and the science ministry agreed to have further discussions before the Duma votes on the bill after the summer break.
There have been long-running concerns over the dwindling scientific performance of many of the academy’s institutes. Critics say that the academy has been excessively reluctant to adopt the changes — including the introduction of a merit-based funding system based on peer review, and closure of severely under-performing institutes — that the Russian government has repeatedly urged it to make.
Fortov has previously said that he will introduce regular performance reviews and a number of other measures to make the academy more efficient. He is to remain at the helm of the new united academy, but his reform ideas might be rendered obsolete, as the envisaged new body — stripped of its management role — would bear little resemblance to the former RAS.
Russian scientists are split over the plans. Many admit that the RAS is in dire need of reform. But most are also deeply disturbed and outraged by the government’s attempt to make sweeping changes to country’s research landscape without consulting scientists.
A small group of foreign scientists working in Russia has voiced concerns that the loss of the RAS, without adequate replacement, will be a “devastating blow to Russian science”.